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Saturday, April 11, 2009

The peacemaking process has a cultural dimension


Peace is not simply an absence of military conflict. It is a long process in which potential or actual opponents can deepen their understanding of each other and correct misperceptions or misunderstandings. If this aspect is lacking, military conflict can easily break out again.

There is another aspect to the long process of peace that is related to the post-conflict stage of peace-building. Reconstruction efforts should not be confined to merely rebuilding facilities and infrastructure. Nor should they end with the rehabilitation of political, legal or educational systems or institutions.

There is yet another more delicate dimension to the post-conflict peace-building process — the rehabilitation of wounded minds. In short, peace-building has cultural and psychological dimensions as well as political and economic aspects.

The cultural dimension of peace-building can be divided into three stages. The first stage is related to efforts to prevent or mitigate misperception and misunderstanding about opponents or potential opponents. Politico-military conflicts between different nations or groups are likely to intensify prejudice and misunderstanding among opponents. Cultural exchanges, particularly those exchanges conducted in an unconventional cultural environment, can help transform prejudices or misperceptions.

One such example is the effort by a Japanese nongovernmental organization to invite Palestinian and Israeli high school students to Japan, take them to Hiroshima and have them play soccer matches together. Their tour of Japan helped the students to realize that even the tremendous suffering caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima could be healed, if not individually at least collectively, so that reconciliation could be reached between Japan and the United States.

At the same time, those Middle Eastern students who had been viewing each other from a possibly biased perspective could now see each other from a different angle. Such an evolution was made possible partly because Japan was culturally an entirely new and different environment for the Palestinian and Israeli students.

The second stage of cultural exchanges can be formed even in the midst of conflicts, especially with regard to the perception and understanding of the third party's or outside world's perception of the areas in conflict. The areas of military and political conflicts are likely to be reported and represented by the mass media as places of war and tragedy, but mass media may fail to accurately portray the lives of ordinary citizens there, thus screening them from the outside world.

To restore a balance it is necessary to portray ordinary citizens' everyday lives and sentiments to the outside world. One of the most effective ways to do so is through plays and films. The performances of the Palestinian Al-Kasaba-Theater and of the Al-Murwass Group of Baghdad, which have taken place in Tokyo during the past few years, are good examples of attempts to help make Japanese citizens feel closer to the people in Palestine and Iraq.

A third stage of cultural exchanges involves their use as a tool for helping to heal the wounds or damage caused by conflicts and for helping to restore pride and confidence in the cultural heritage of the nation, which can then be mobilized for national reconstruction and peace-building.

Iraqi musician Naseer Shamma came to Japan and played the oud, a traditional musical instrument. It was a sign of international encouragement to restore and strengthen the musical tradition of Iraq. It was all the more significant as Shamma was politically persecuted under the Saddam Hussein regime.

Another such example was the invitation program for Afghan ceramic artists to come to Japan and hold exchanges with Japanese porcelain artists. The program has helped to restore Afghan ceramic production sites, most of which were destroyed by war. Such exchanges strengthened national pride in the traditional arts, which in turn encouraged national reconstruction efforts.

These cultural activities in different stages of the peace-building process can be effective only if they are accompanied by politico-military and economic initiatives. But at the same time, if we ignore or neglect the cultural and psychological dimension of peace-building, the process will not be effective in the long term because peace-building is ultimately a process of redefining national or group identity that was destroyed or damaged through conflict.

Only through cultural exchanges with the outside world, particularly with a world culturally different from one's own, can one redefine oneself and restore one's self-confidence. Japan's policies after World War II have been based on this conviction, though sometimes the Japanese themselves have to be reminded of the importance of such convictions.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation. He has served as Japanese ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea and France.


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